My Uncle Rick, Aunt Cary and their immediate family rented a boat for the week in Croatia. They had room for one more person beyond the family and, being the only extended family member in Europe, got the invite. This was most certainly an opportunity to not turn down.
Based on my travel schedule, I had four days to enjoy Croatia before the boat left from Split. Croatia´s most famous city, Dubrovnik, was located just a 3-hour drive south of Split. I therefore decided to go there first for two nights before returning to Split.
I first tried to fly into Dubrovnik, but the flights were insanely expensive and required an overnight layover. I then decided to book a flight to Split, the next nearest city. In order to get to Dubrovnik, I needed to go by land. With no trains, my first instinct was the public bus. Normally, the busses run every hour. However, due to COVID, there were only 3 per day, with the next bus being 7 hours after landing. That seemed unfeasible. I therefore decided to instead rent a car from Split. The car rental was 70€ for the 1-way rental which seemed extremely expensive, but it appeared to be my only option.
With all the logistics in place it was time to go!
May 26, 2021: Road Trip to Dubrovnik
I landed in Split´s beautiful airport. Immigration was easy into my 73rd country. I then picked up my rental car. The attendant told me I got a great deal since typically the company charges 125€ as a one-way rental fee.
Annoyingly, the rental car I was given had a nearly empty fuel tank. I therefore needed to guess the amount of fuel I would consume on the drive. Without any way of really guessing, I filled up the entire tank…for 55€ (about 350 Croatian kuna). Ouch!
Finally, I was able to leave Split. I cut inland and in 30 minutes later, reached my first stop: an ancient cemetery. The tombstones are apparently of exceptional architectural quality and were recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Overrated? Yes. But at least the countryside was very pretty.
I then got lunch at a local restaurant. The staff spoke no English, but strangely they had an English menu. I asked for a recommendation was first directed towards the most expensive item on the menu. When I asked a second time, I was recommended the beef boiled in salt water. The food was simple and reminded me of the fresh lamb I had in Vis in the south of Serbia. The meal was also €15, which is probably double what it would have cost in Serbia. It is clear that Croatia is not the cheap Eastern European destination I was expecting. Why are things so much more expensive in Croatia than the rest of Eastern Europe? I can think of two reasons: 1. Mass tourism has pushed prices in the country to “global” tourist prices which are far above typical Eastern Europe prices. 2. Even though Croatia has its own currency, being in the EU and Eurozone has exposed Croatia to far greater trade opportunities and has pushed prices up. Either way, a meal in this tiny town in inland Croatia cost more than a 3-course lunch in a typical restaurant in Barcelona.
Continuing south, the country became so narrow that the highway was pushed towards the coast. I then continued south along a two-lane road. 20-minutes later, I reached a border crossing. It turns out that there is a tiny speck of Bosnia along the Adriatic coast that bisects Croatia. In order to reach the rest of Croatia, which included Dubrovnik, you must drive across the 10 kilometers of Bosnia. This border is significant because Croatia is part of the European Union, but Bosnia is not. This border crossing is tricky in normal times due to visas (does crossing Bosnia count as an extra entry into the Schengen Area? Does a Croatian/EU car´s insurance policy cover Bosnia?) but is extra tricky due to COVID (do I need a PCR test for this crossing?).
Luckily, the two countries have an agreement where tourists traveling between the two parts of Croatia can transit Bosnia issue-free so long as they reenter Croatia within the hour. The driving time to cross Bosnia, so this is never an issue. However, the border does sometimes create a massive traffic jam.
To fix all these logistical issues, Croatia is currently building a bridge (using Chinese money and expertise) to connect the two segments of their country. The bridge is located just north of the current border crossing and connects to a peninsula that is part of the exclave.
Luckily for me, the wait was short and I was stamped out of Croatia. In addition to my passport, the officer looked at my car´s registration. 20 meters away, the Bosnian officer looked at my passport, but did not stamp it. He then waved me through. The drive across Bosnia would have taken 10 minutes, except I stopped for an extra 5 to take pictures and pee on the side of the road.
Surprisingly, the Bosnian coast consisted of a single sleepy resort town. There is no port or commerce of any kind going on. Seems like a wasted opportunity.
I then had to cross a second border to reenter Croatia where I was stamped in. I then was free to continue onward.
My next stop was the town of Ston. This medieval town is known for its walls, reportedly the longest and largest in all of Europe. Parking in Ston cost 8 kuna (just over 1 Euro). However, they required a cash payment. I did not have any Croatian cash at the moment, but luckily there was an ATM. Annoyingly, the ATM would only dispense a minimum of 200 kuna. I then had to purchase a water in a nearby store to obtain the correct amount of cash to pay for the parking. Not sure if this is just bad luck, but I feel like I am constantly getting cheated out of small amounts of money today.
The tiny town´s two attractions: the walls and a castle, can be purchased for a surpiringly expensive 70 kuna on a single ticket. The castle takes about 5 minutes to check out. The walls are 5 kilometers long and travel across a mountain. They therefore can take either 20 minutes or a few hours. The walls are seriously impressive and provide spectacular views of the countryside.
Finally it was time to drive to Durbrovnik. As I approached the town, the cliffs over the sea became even more beautiful and dramatic. What a setting for a town!
Unfortunately, I had to drop my rental car off at the airport, which was 25 kilometers south of the town. As I pulled into the airport, the place was completely empty. I went into the terminal to look for the airport bus. I was told that the buses are timed to coincide with arriving flights. Unfortunately, the next flight was not due to arrive for another 4.5 hours. Therefore, there was no public transit option to reach the city from the airport.
A taxi was a whopping €30-35. Since I had already spent €35 on the taxi in Barcelona plus €120 on the rental car and fuel in Croatia, I was not in the mood to spend any more money today. I asked the information desk if there were any cheaper ways to reach Dubrovnik. The attendant said I could take an Uber to a town just 5 minutes away. From there, I could catch a bus directly to Dubrovnik.
I decided to go for this option. I called the Uber and was driven to the bus station, which was nothing more than a concrete shelter covered in urine. We both consulted the timetable posted on the wall and realized that I had just missed the bus by 1 minute. The Uber driver laughed at me and took off.
To pass the time, I purchased a tall-boy beer at a local kiosk. An hour later, a bus zoomed up to the stop, I got on, purchased my ticket for 35 kuna ($7), and we took off towards Dubrovnik. 25 minutes later, we reached the outskirts of town. I then walked 10 minutes down a steep series of steps to reach the majestic Pile Gate of the old city of Dubrovnik.
My 17-hour journey had finally come to an end.